Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Journal of a Mud House, a continuation --3

[Illustration from "The Journal of a Mud House" by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Harper's Magazine, March, 1922]

The Edge of Santa Fe, hm? It still looks something like that -- the Edge is just farther out than it was in 1922 or whenever that picture was taken. The houses are probably fancier, though not necessarily (depending on which Edge you're looking at), and the area will probably be criss-crossed with telephone and electric lines. Other than that? Not a whole lot has changed.

I'm not sure exactly where this picture was taken, but while her house in Tesuque was being renovated -- or at least made habitable -- Sergeant and her "pardner" (as she was referred to by José who did much of the work on the Tesuque house) Gertrude lived in what sounds like a furnished casita on the Camino del Monte Sol, which runs more or less north and south from Canyon Road to the Old Santa Fe Trail. It is full of historic compounds, some of them dating back to the 18th Century, many of them very luxurious now. The picture above may have been taken from or just above Sergeant's digs in Santa Fe.

I remember the first time I was in Santa Fe, 1982, it was opening of Opera season, and there were many parties going on, all of them seemingly at guarded adobe walled compounds, armed guards no less in some cases. The compounds generally consisted of a main house and one or more guest houses, scattered at random over the property -- of perhaps an acre or so -- where very luxurious people lived (sometimes only in the summer) and entertained their guests. And this was "in town."

Many of these luxurious Opera lovers owned exquisite art and artifacts, much of it, of course, Native American, but certainly not all. There was plenty of contemporary work by artists who lived and worked in the area, there were paintings by some of Los Cinco Pintores and others from the early days of the Taos and Santa Fe artists colonies, and there was more than a smattering of Impressionist landscapes from as far away as such exotic locales as California and France.

When an artist friend moved out to New Mexico from California around 1990 he settled first in Albuquerque because he said he couldn't take the pretensions of the Santa Fe art patrons -- to say nothing of their petty obsessions and rivalries and feuds. Well. Yes. Where do you think you are?

He was eventually convinced to resettle in Santa Fe when some of his patrons found him appropriate digs -- a really nice though rather cramped compound not far from the Plaza -- where he could entertain the way he wanted to, which was very open, unguarded, and absolutely (well, maybe not absolutely) without pretension. He was a Native American artist (but of completely, and sometimes hilariously, mongrel ancestry) and he grew up living very simply. Even when he became Famous, he always stayed grounded in simplicity. He found, I think, the underlying simplicity of Santa Fe living, much as many artists before him had done and many still do, and he could watch -- and even play with -- the pretensions of the High-Style Art Lovers who proliferate in New Mexico to this day.

I've mentioned that Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant was part of the Taos Artists Colony which was spreading toward Santa Fe (actually, it had started from Santa Fe) when she was working on her little Mud House in Tesuque. But Santa Fe was then, as it had been for hundreds of years, a working town, not an Art Haven at all, and though it was the Capital of Nuevo Mexico under the Spanish and the Mexicans, and then under the Americans Capital of the Territory and later the State of New Mexico, its political status had little impact on most of the people who lived and worked there. In those days, Tesuque, which is now a suburban enclave for the very fancy indeed, including some of those (like the Stedmans) who regularized and popularized and continue the Santa Fe Style in the 1920's and '30's and now, when Sergeant was re-doing her Mud House, it was as it had long been a ranching outpost, a Spanish village and an Indian Pueblo. All of that heritage is still there, but it is overlain now with much of what Sergeant and others from Back East brought with them: a deep admiration for arts and letters and an abiding sense of Place, as in: This is the Place.

I've also mentioned that people in New Mexico have private libraries (we certainly do!) and they read. Many write, too. In addition to the plethora of visual artists, performing artists, and would-be artists, Santa Fe, Taos and other parts of New Mexico boast all kinds of literary artists. The stories that this place has to tell! Well, the tales, anyway.

I think "true fiction" was invented here in New Mexico. I could be wrong of course. Much of Elizabeth Sergeant's story rings absolutely true, for example, and then parts of it don't. You just don't know. And the locals are well-known for, shall we say, "embroidery." Why not? There's no real harm done, and the record can always be corrected later. If need be.

In Sergeant's day, Santa Fe was a working town as it had been for hundreds of years, and as it still is in parts. The Santa Fe Trail, of course, terminated at the Santa Fe Plaza, and it was along the Santa Fe Trail that "America" and this distant, exotic land communicated with one another commercially and socially. Prior to the American Conquest, it was a somewhat limited communication, as the Spanish and later Mexican authorities were not particularly kindly disposed to Anglo penetration, but after the Conquest, there was a huge increase in traffic and penetration from the East. Well, "huge." Comparatively speaking.

New Mexico was still very much a backwater until the railroad came, and that wasn't until the 1880's; the Santa Fe itself never did get to Santa Fe, stopping 18 miles short at Lamy on the excuse that it was just too difficult to lay track to the ancient capital. But a spur was eventually built, the trains started arriving, and Modernity arrived. With Modernity came the Artists.

Ever since, the two have wrapped tightly around one another to create the contemporary spirit of New Mexico. It is deeply and permanently ground in the Past -- a Past which is ever-present. The Pueblos and their peoples are still here -- though the ones nearest me were abandoned centuries ago, their residents simply moved over the mountains. Their descendants still live in the Rio Grande Pueblos or the ones further West; or they live in the towns and cities round about or elsewhere in the country or the world. Wherever they live, they carry the spirit of the place they're from with them.

Literature based in New Mexico has had a profound impact on America's sense of the West, more so perhaps than any other Western genre, including that of my own California. In fact, California and New Mexico have long been linked through their shared remote-Spanish culture. But there are other linkages too, including the one of Perpetual Promise. Though linked, the Spirit of the two Places is not the same.

D. H. Lawrence and Frieda came out here in the early '20's and stayed with Mabel Dodge Luhan up in Taos for a season, then set out for a more remote location at what is now the D. H. Lawrence Ranch., a National Historic Site. Aldous Huxley came to call -- after all, these Anglos stick together, especially if they're British! Huxley was profoundly influenced by his sojourn in the remoteness of New Mexico, as can be easily seen in his contrasting perspectives of the Future in "Brave New World." I think he was struck, as so many are, by the sense of permanence of the Pueblos compared to the harried, hurried impermanence of "civilization."

More than anything, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant seemed to be struck by the people she met here, people she'd been "told about" -- in the characteristic superior/inferior context of the day, but what she found was quite different than what she was told to expect from the Natives. That's the way it goes.

What you find, if you are open to it, is not what you imagine, not what you expect. It's not perfect, far from it. People still come from Back East trying their damnedest to make "perfection" here, but my question is always "why?" Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant found she didn't have to push for "perfection" in New Mexico. The reality and the Spirit of the Place was perfectly good enough.

But then, what do you want perfection for?

[Click image to embiggen text]

There you are then.

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